Midyear Review: The Five Best Films of 2016 (So Far)

The cinematic landscape of summer 2016 has been tumultuous, if not outright disastrous, from a financial standpoint. The summer started off strong with “Captain America: Civil War,” which was as big a smash with audiences and critics as most everyone expected. “Finding Dory” seemed to win over fans of the original Pixar classic and (naturally) made a boatload of money. Yet for each tentpole summer blockbuster that succeeded, there were about three or four that underperformed commercially. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “Now You See Me 2,” “Warcraft,” “The BFG,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “Independence Day: Resurgence” were all financial disappointments to some degree. Are audiences finally craving originality? Are they tired of sequels they didn’t ask for? Probably not.

I don’t have any answers concerning why this has been such a lackluster summer at the movies, but since it seems that many of you are choosing to avoid these massive-scale blockbusters, here are some films you may have looked over. Admittedly, what intrigues me about certain movies may repel others, but if anything, these selections offer a unique experience that the aforementioned big studio films cannot.

  1. “The Lobster” (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

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The latest film by social experimenter Yorgos Lanthimos holds the distinction of being both the funniest film of 2016 and the most disturbing. Even dread-laden (and excellent) fare such as “The Witch” did not get under my skin like “The Lobster.” The film deftly balances a subtle, dry wit with its bleak and oppressive setting.  As with the rest of Lanthimos’s work (“Dogtooth” and “Alps”), the film is astonishing in the way it meshes the absurd with the mundane. The story is set in a city where romantic partners are mandatory by law. Single people are taken to a hotel in which they are told to find a partner in forty-five days or be turned into an animal of their choosing. As ridiculous as this premise is, Lanthimos, along with lead Colin Farrell, manage to mine it for humor all the while exploring ideas about what attracts us to an individual and society’s focus on monogamy. “The Lobster” is science fiction satire of the highest order.

2. “The Neon Demon” (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

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After inexplicably garnering mainstream appeal with 2011’s gorgeous and ultraviolent “Drive,” critics and cinephiles were eagerly anticipating Refn’s next move. Would he jump onto a massive franchise? Or would he continue making highly stylized, idiosyncratic crime films in the vein of “Drive”? When his follow-up, “Only God Forgives,” was released in 2013, critics and audiences were underwhelmed (to put it mildly). The film was a critical and financial disaster, although a select few such as myself remain staunch defenders.

Surely the most polarizing film on this list, “The Neon Demon” may very well be Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s visual masterpiece. As expected, it is an aesthetic marvel. Cliff Martinez once again composed the score which nearly outshines the images on screen in terms of beauty. That’s saying quite a bit, given every frame here is pristine. To talk about plot would be superfluous, as any fan (or detractor) of Refn knows that in his world, plot is secondary to hypnotic images and atmosphere. Suffice to say that the film revolves around beauty-obsessed L.A. fashion models and plays something like “American Psycho” crossed with a fairy tale as directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Critics who dismissed the film as style over substance aren’t necessarily wrong, but if you can surrender yourself to the film’s haunting visuals and dream logic, you are in for a wholly singular experience.

3. “Hail, Caesar!” (dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

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When I first saw the trailer for “Hail, Caesar!,” I thought that the Coen brothers might have made their most accessible comedy to date. Yet as far as accessibility goes, “Hail, Caesar!” leans more in the direction of “Barton Fink” than, say, “True Grit.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t some broader humor at play in their loving homage/biting satire of 1950s Hollywood. George Clooney, in particular, plays the type of character the Coens love to cast him as: the insufferable moron. But like much of their work, I find myself simultaneously enraptured and confounded upon the first viewing. The Coens take pleasure in allowing the audience to do much of the heavy lifting, but luckily the film also happens to be an absolute delight. If I had taken the time to see it again before compiling this list, I have a feeling it may have had a better shot at the top spot.

4. “Green Room” (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

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Jeremy Saulnier’s films feel like they were made for me. When a couple friends and I watched the astounding revenge thriller “Blue Ruin” a couple years ago, I felt like I had made the year’s greatest cinematic discovery. His follow-up, “Green Room,” starring the late Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and an ice-cold Patrick Stewart, is another nasty little thriller that ratchets the tension up ten minutes in and rarely stops to breathe. The bare-bones plot focuses on a punk band fighting for their lives after witnessing a brutal crime in a venue run by Nazi skinheads. This is exploitation cinema with a pulse. If it wasn’t for the human element established by both the script and performances, “Green Room” would simply be a stomach-churning parade of gore (which is still fine by me). Instead, like his last effort, Saulnier elevates genre thrills into a meditation on what happens when normal people are confronted with horrific violence. It’s also just a damn good time at the movies.

5. “The Witch” (dir. Robert Eggers)

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We horror junkies are a diligent bunch. Year after year, we patiently sift through garbage in a genre that is full of it, waiting for a film that transcends the genre and earns an indelible position in the horror pantheon. After seeing some of my favorite critics heap accolades upon “The Witch” after its Sundance premiere, I kept my guard up. The recent wave of arthouse horror has often left me impressed, yet ultimately cold (see: “The Babadook,” “Goodnight Mommy” or “It Follows”). With “The Witch,” First time director (!) Robert Eggers proves you can successfully combine the cold, subdued craft of certain arthouse cinema with the visceral genre thrills that horror lovers crave. To reveal the film’s plot would be unfair, but its mechanics are simple and well-tread. Said mechanics involve a family, a cabin and a looming threat in the woods. The most obvious comparison here would be Kubrick’s “The Shining,” not just for its stagnant camera work, but its ability to instill a sense of dread from the first frame. It’s refreshing to see a genre piece that does not need to rely on tired and cheap ploys to scare the shit out of you.

Honorable Mentions: “Wiener-Dog,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Love and Friendship,” “The Nice Guys”

Midyear Review: The Five Best Films of 2016 (So Far)

The Discordant Spirituality of “Bad Lieutenant”

“Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves.”

-Zoe, “Bad Lieutenant”

Okay, shoot me; I’ve already written a piece on a gritty character study, set in New York, starring Harvey Keitel as a damaged loner plagued by his inner demons. I swear my cinematic tastes are typically not narrowed down to such niche and lugubrious endeavors. I had other options. I considered reflecting on the perverse Shakespeare-meets-Lynch overtones of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” (that one’s coming soon). Such considerations were futile. Ultimately, I felt as compelled to write about “Bad Lieutenant” as the six or seven times I’ve chosen to rewatch it. Abel Ferrara’s 1992 psychodrama rattles my sense of spiritual complacency like no work of art has before or since. As a person who tries (and frequently fails) to avoid unnecessary hyperbole and laughable pretension in his writing, I can imagine how this sounds.

“Bad Lieutenant” is filled with unpleasant imagery: prolonged, unflinching depictions of heroin being shot into veins along with callous acts of violence, both sexual and gun-related. Luckily, this is offset with an extended, full-frontal shot in which viewers are treated to the memorable sight of Harvey Keitel’s shriveled, flaccid penis. Portraying the “bad” lieutenant of the title (a character that remains nameless), Keitel’s performance is the film’s life force.

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When we first meet the lieutenant, any shred of sanity or normalcy in his lifestyle has long since disappeared. During the times he is obligated to maintain some composure in the presence of his alienated family, fellow police officers or bookies, he possesses the restless mannerisms of a junkie. His eyes constantly shifting, his movements jerky and rushed, as if always scouting for the next opportunity to scam, coerce or cheat his way into chemical oblivion. He goes to equally contemptuous lengths for sex, another high he chases with joyless rigor. The movie has zero interest in delivering a message about corruption in the police force. This person just happens to maintain a position of power that has allowed him (presumably for years) to steal, use copious amounts of drugs and get away with the occasional sexual assault.

Abel Ferrara, who cut his teeth directing cheap porno and grindhouse flicks in the ‘70s, retains the aesthetic sensibility of his roots here. The film has a grimy, low-budget look that feels appropriate for its subject and setting. Stylized camera techniques are scarce and that stoic approach mirrors the single-minded nature of its subject. For an acting performance that I consider among the greatest, Keitel plays it dour and withdrawn. Underneath, however, the viewer can sense psychic wounds barely held at bay. Only in a few crucial and devastating sequences are these wounds fully exposed. It’s an extraordinary feat of acting that few others besides Keitel could pull off without careening into distracting melodrama.

The plot revolves around an investigation concerning the rape and brutalization of a nun by two young men. The crime’s details are so vicious and inhumane that the lieutenant is momentarily disrupted from his moral stupor. In the hospital, he overhears the nun confess she knows the identities of the perpetrators and yet she will not turn them over to the police. She has forgiven them. The lieutenant is flabbergasted. “But do you have the right?” he asks her, “Your forgiveness will leave blood in its wake.” God has spoken to her, she claims, and she is at peace. This act of forgiveness wakes up long-dormant questions of morality in the lieutenant.

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A lesser screenplay would present its audiences with a narrative traversing the familiar trajectory from damnation to redemption. Instead, this film has its audience watch the character continue along the downward spiral from where he was introduced. Ferrara does not want to insult your intelligence by forcing unearned answers to impossible questions. He understands what is truly moving is the profound emotional impact this realization wreaks during the tragic tailspin of the lieutenant’s life. The film frames the lieutenant’s moral and spiritual torment with Catholicism; logically, because this is the lens through which he learned about moral absolutes. But the thematic scope of “Bad Lieutenant” is broader than the sect of a single religion. Instead, it deals with the conditions that cause the soul to corrode rapidly beyond recognition. Even still, humanity and dignity can remain.

Usually, if someone asks my favorite movie, I tell them either “Jaws” or “Taxi Driver,” depending on the audience. If I’m being honest, “Bad Lieutenant” is my favorite. I mainly don’t like to reveal this because people may check it out and think I must have some fucked up skeletons in the closet. I sincerely hope that’s not the case. It is simply the grip this film has on me every time I watch it. It refuses to look away from the worst of society, yet manages to emerge as deeply spiritual and hopeful about the human condition.

 

Note: There are two versions of this film available: one which is 96 minutes and rated NC-17, and an R-rated edition with five minutes of footage cut out. Be sure to watch the NC-17 version, as it is the only cut of which the director approves.

The Discordant Spirituality of “Bad Lieutenant”

Hidden Gem: How “Hobo with a Shotgun” Succeeds Where “Grindhouse” Failed

“I’m going to wash this blood off…with your blood.”

                                   -Slick, “Hobo with a Shotgun”

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez directed two films (“Death Proof” and “Planet Terror,” respectively) and decided to release them theatrically as a double feature under the banner “Grindhouse.” At the time, it was a move that seemed both unwieldy and entirely appropriate.  Both Rodriguez and Tarantino have a panache for bringing extreme violence and too-cool characters, ripped directly from grindhouse/exploitation films of the 70s, into mainstream movie theatres. Rodriguez maintained a self-aware goofiness in his early work with films such as “Desperado” (1995) and “From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Meanwhile, Tarantino (with inarguably greater success) fused his exploitation roots with the high art aesthetics of Godard, immediately clicking with Generation X as a director whose art was both accomplished and fun.

Anywho, this whole “Grindhouse” idea seemed like the perfect release strategy for directors who publicly touted their influences and preference for the carefree, gratifying nature that 70s exploitation represented. Yet, “Grindhouse” was a massive flop, opening to a mere $11 million in its first weekend. Maybe it was the fact that audiences didn’t want to devote 4 hours to sitting in a theater. Or maybe having a woman with a gun for a leg as a lead character didn’t appeal to most of America. Whatever the reason, the whole endeavor left a bad taste in people’s mouths. To this day, “Death Proof” is viewed by many as Tarantino’s token worst film. For my money, while both films are far from perfect, the problem lies in the fact that Rodriguez and Tarantino were trying to sell something that never interested mainstream audiences in the first place. Exploitation cinema was a subgenre that existed on the dirty fringes of American theatres. Grindhouse theatres and the films they showed were regarded as immoral trash by the majority. Today, they are only remembered fondly by a similarly niche audience.

This is all a long winded way of saying that 2011’s “Hobo with a Shotgun,” directed by Jason Eisener and written by John Davies, succeeds in every area where “Grindhouse” falls short. With “Planet Terror,” Rodriguez made the mistake of constantly winking at the viewer, letting you know that he isn’t really taking any of this seriously. Don’t cringe at the ultraviolence, it’s just a joke! “Hobo with a Shotgun,” based on a fan-made trailer that won a contest to play with “Grindhouse,” doesn’t feel a need to reassure its audience. “Hobo” revels in the filth of its content. It’s absolutely fucking sincere. It takes the no-rules approach that Troma Studios became known for and improves upon it, using actors entirely committed to their performances and employing a Technicolor scheme that is both nauseating and gorgeous.

The film’s title sums up the entire plot. Rutger Hauer (anchoring the film with his fantastic performance) plays a noble, well-intentioned hobo living in a neighborhood so filled with putrid individuals murdering and raping everyone in sight that it makes the neighborhood in “Death Wish 3” seem like Carmel, Indiana. When he’s finally pushed TOO FAR, he grabs a shotgun and starts fucking shit up.

There is passion dripping from every frame and line of dialogue in the film; it’s a powerful antidote to the detached sense of hipness that pervaded “Death Proof.” This is a film whose violence crescendos in a scene (spoiler) where children packed in a school bus are incinerated by the villain, in a bit of acting so over-the-top that it transcends distraction and becomes sublime. Hopefully, one hundred years from now, respectable critics and historians will look back at this beautiful scene and realize that 21st century cinema peaked here.

Needless to say, the film is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for most people. The film’s saving grace and (potentially) biggest detractor is the way in which it relishes the world it inhabits and all the gruesome, abhorrent content that goes along with it. Chances are, if this is your cup of tea, you may have stumbled upon “Hobo” on Netflix or Amazon Prime. If not, however, please sit down with a couple of game friends and marvel at this work of ingeniously bonkers trash art. Sit in awe at the lack of boundaries in its violence! Weep at the plight of Rutger Hauer’s hobo, who just wants to mow lawns and earn an honest living! Also, he seems to carry around a photograph of a bear in case he might ever need it.

I’ll leave you with some choice bits of dialogue:

“Welcome to Fucktown!”

“Lock him up with the sodomites and get me the god-damned chief of police.”

“You’re so hot, you make me want to cut my dick off and rub it all over your titties.”

“Jerk off to THIS, you child molesting shitlicker!”

Hidden Gem: How “Hobo with a Shotgun” Succeeds Where “Grindhouse” Failed

“Observe and Report”: an unjustly forgotten black comedy of rare ambition

 

Unlike my last entry, “Fingers,” this week’s focus is a film that I was not only alive for during its release, but harbor a fond memory of seeing in a nearly empty theatre my junior year of high school. “Observe and Report,” the 2009 black comedy/satire by writer-director Jody Hill (“Eastbound & Down) was met with mediocre reviews (although there were a handful of major critics who reviewed it favorably). To this day, it remains the lowest-grossing mainstream film of Seth Rogen’s career, falling behind generically commercial dreck such as “The Guilt Trip” and “The Green Hornet.” Looking back, I remember the film being dismissed as a raunchy, R rated alternative to the abysmal “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which may be part of the reason a mature mainstream audience virtually ignored its release.

It’s hard not to wish for a world in which a comedy this daring and subversive was met with the widespread acclaim and modest box office success it deserved. Yet “Observe and Report” is so unapologetic in its cruelty and refusal to make excuses for the main character’s racism, misogyny and violent behavior that, in retrospect, it seems inevitable that so cynical a satire would be lost on most moviegoers. In this case, most moviegoers being those who came in expecting Seth Rogen in the lovable, well-meaning stoner mode he helped make a character archetype in the Apatowian comedies of the aughts. Fans of Jody Hill’s previous work in the HBO series “Eastbound & Down” and “Foot Fist Way” were likely still shocked, albeit less so, to see Rogen playing the type of character Hill usually reserved for Danny McBride (who cameos here) pushed to an ugly extreme.

The crucial difference between McBride’s MLB has-been Kenny Powers and Rogen’s unhinged mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt is that the latter character’s self-delusions make him a physical danger to others. In McBride’s brilliant performance, the viewer senses that underneath his obnoxious posturing and disregard for others lies an insecure man-child trying to gain the approval and acceptance his parents refused him. Ronnie is also a character who aspires to be admired, but as a police officer rather than a sports hero. He constantly touts himself as a protector of the mall’s inhabitants, the only thing standing between innocent shoppers and the evil scum hoping to prey on them. The problem is that it’s clear what most appeals to him is having the opportunity to inflict as much pain as possible on others. Becoming a police officer will finally give him the chance to wield a gun instead of the mall-issued Tasers and nightsticks. If Ronnie wasn’t so oblivious to how dangerous this kind of mindset is, the film would be nearly devoid of humor, but he genuinely sees himself as a hero.

The film begins when a flasher escapes the mall after exposing himself to unwitting customers in the parking lot. This provides Ronnie a window of opportunity to prove himself as the selfless, heroic enforcer that the mall so desperately needs. It also allows him to try and impress the object of his infatuation, Brandi, the woman behind the make-up counter. Brandi, played to perfection by Anna Farris, is staggeringly shallow and mean-spirited and Ronnie is too oblivious to see her as anything but God’s reason for the opposite sex.

Another film might ask us to root for Ronnie as he does his gosh-darndest to be a police officer while finding that dirty old pervert and saving the day. Hill’s script loosely follows, and subverts, this cookie-cutter plot, but the viewer is frequently prevented from getting behind Rogen’s character as we witness him committing acts of increasing violence and misogyny. As “Observe and Report” hits the overall plot points we expect, nasty digressions revealing Ronnie’s repugnant character make us realize that he is by far the most dangerous thing in this mall, and his becoming a police officer would likely result in unspeakable carnage.

After reading this, you may be thinking this does not sound in the least bit like comedy. Make no mistake: “Observe and Report” is funny, even if it is willing to dwell in uncomfortable places that few mainstream comedies do. The film’s humor comes in its resistance to redeem its main character in the dark mirror of a plot we would usually expect from films like, um, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Additionally, it features a fantastic supporting cast at their most vitriolic, including Michael Peña, Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari, Ray Liotta and Anna Farris.

Is this a film for all tastes? Certainly not. The hellish sequence involving Ronnie and Brandi’s date is bound to make even the most seasoned fan of dark comedy squirm. That’s kind of the point. “Observe and Report” satirizes the kind of character we expect to see carrying these kinds of underdog films, someone whose idea of heroics chiefly involves inflicting maximum pain on others, by putting him under a harsh and unblinking light. I’ll never forget going to see this film with a friend in high school and our reactions switching between hysterical laughter and dropped jaws of incredulity that a movie went this far. It’s one of the biggest clichés in film criticism to employ such buzz words as “subversive” or “daring,” but “Observe and Report” earns itself a medal of dishonor in bravery.

Next Week: “Hobo with a Shotgun”

 

Images taken from:

http://www.vulture.com

http://www.listal.com

http://www.nytimes.com

“Observe and Report”: an unjustly forgotten black comedy of rare ambition

The violent, operatic tragedy of “Fingers”

 

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James Toback, a screenwriter whose films often center on a protagonist crippled by his or her inability to prevent their own moral decadence, has never been known for subtlety. In 1978, Toback released “Fingers,” his first, and best, directorial effort that takes this kind of character study to its extreme in a psychodrama elevated to operatic levels by lead actor Harvey Keitel’s performance. Here, Keitel brings quiet nuance to a character that could easily have been lost in the broad strokes of which Toback’s screenplay paints both its themes and narrative progression.

“Fingers” is a film indelibly shaped by its recurring motif of duality. Keitel plays Jimmy Fingers, a highly disturbed young man who spends much of his time extorting money through threats of violence for his mob boss father. In his spare time, Keitel is a classically trained pianist, endowed with magnificent skill, training for an audition to perform in Carnegie Hall. Keitel portrays Jimmy as a person who is quite obviously dangerous, yet in scenes where he practices piano alone in his dilapidated NYC apartment, viewers are allowed a glimpse of a gentler, more introspective aspect of his personality.

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The film’s structure, like its protagonist, is divided between its brute violent nature and a tortured, vulnerable undercurrent that comes to the foreground in scenes involving Jimmy’s musical aspirations. Keitel employs multiple, offbeat tics in his performance; a man who seems uncomfortable in his own skin, constantly fidgeting and clenching and unclenching his fists. The inner turmoil caused by the dueling aspects of his psyche externalizes itself in almost all of Jimmy’s mannerisms. He walks around town holding a large stereo, unselfconsciously blaring pop tunes by the Drifters and Merilee Rush. True to Toback’s lack of subtlety, it’s not difficult to notice the juxtaposition between the complexity of classical music and the more immediate gratification a pop song allows. Pop music often plays while Jimmy is indulging in compulsive, primal violent and sexual deeds.

“Fingers” takes its inspiration from the early works of Scorsese, particularly “Who’s that Knocking at my Door?,” which also stars Keitel in the lead role as a tormented individual. Another apt, and more recent, comparison could be Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2013 effort “Only God Forgives.”  Both films deal with protagonists who are essentially man-children, emotionally stunted by deranged parental relationships, driven by their warped violent and sexual impulses, unable to control their descent into violent retribution.

Many critics have shunned the film for the way in which it wears its themes on its sleeve, but the it is salvaged by the effectiveness of Keitel’s performance. This is a compelling character whose monstrous nature gains audience sympathy by the way in which Keitel plays Jimmy as a man in constant pain and discomfort, massively insecure. Unfortunately, the film has been lost to obscurity, but for those willing to track it down, “Fingers” is a unique New York crime film that is more interested in the psychology of its protagonist than its genre trappings.

The violent, operatic tragedy of “Fingers”